A spell in ‘Colly’ will no doubt have a significant impact on both service and family life. Personnel from all three services could face time at the Military Corrective Training Centre for offences that carry sentences of anything from 14 days to two years. Whether or not they’re able to continue their career following their detention, it’s bound to be a worrying time for everyone. We paid a visit to the MCTC in Colchester, to find out more…

When you go behind the wire, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s just like any other camp. Yes, there are stricter protocols, but the surroundings appear familiar and there’s a sense of positivity.

The focus is on rehabilitation, preparing detainees to return to their unit, or getting them ready for civilian life. There’s a reason why the reoffending rate is less than ten per cent, far lower than in state prisons.

How does the process work?

There are three grounds on which personnel can end up here, as MCTC Welfare Officer Alison Tait explains: “There’s court martial from which you can be sent here and then potentially soldier on or be discharged. Or court martial where you can be sent to a civilian prison and you come here first to effectively leave the service. Or you can have a summary hearing from your commanding officer, who looks at what you’ve done and makes a decision as to how many days you can be sent here for, within their legal remit.”

Detainees are split into A Company, for those staying in, and D Company for those discharging from the services when their sentence is complete. They’re normally housed in two separate wings, with communal areas in between, but with low numbers at the time of writing, they’re all in together.

What about families?

Alison says the biggest shock for families is when the soldier isn’t expecting to do time. “Perhaps they’re up to see the CO and think they’re just going to get a few extra duties and then all of a sudden the CO says ‘you’ve got 30 days in MCTC’. Even if they’re going to a court martial, some will believe they’ll only end up with a community order – and that’s the impression they give their family.

“From the moment the court martial sentence happens, they are brought here. There’s no going home to your family first.”

Sometimes personnel, particularly younger ones, will try to play down the situation and tell their families they’re just away on duty. “When they get here we ask which family member they get on with the best, so they have someone to contact, because it’s miserable unless you’ve got someone to ring or have a Skype call with,” adds Alison.

Visits and contact

It’s the unit’s responsibility to check that the family is being supported, but the system isn’t perfect and sometimes people fall through the net. “I’ve called some welfare officers who haven’t even been informed by their chain of command that one of their soldiers is doing 28 days at MCTC,” says Alison.

“They might have thought that it’s a single soldier with no issues, but we’ve had a scenario where someone was going home every weekend to fill the fridge, do the washing and make five packed lunches for their two younger brothers because their parents were unable to – in effect, a weekend carer. These are things that welfare might not be aware of.”

Personnel have their pay stopped on arrival and whether or not you have other income, it’s a real blow to suddenly be without one salary. A Family Maintenance Grant covers the cost of Service Family Accommodation while the soldier is in detention and there is also an element which may support the non-serving spouse whilst waiting for a benefits decision or if unable to access benefits, for example if overseas. Families in their own home should receive support from the unit on how to manage finances. Charities such as SSAFA and The Royal British Legion may also be able to help.

Alison and her team make the detainees’ family considerations a priority on arrival. She says: “On the second day we go through the whole HARDFACTS [health, accommodation, relocation, drugs and alcohol, finances, attitudes, thinking and behaviour, children and families, training and support]. Who are your dependents? Who’s missing you? Where do they get money from? Who puts food on the table?

“Picture all the standing orders and direct debits on your bank statement and just imagine that your pay that month doesn’t happen, it can be very worrying. We sit with them and go through all those responsibilities.”

Emotional wellbeing

The children’s charity Barnado’s works closely with MCTC and meets every detainee who has parental responsibilities, including those who are estranged from their partner and have limited contact with their children. They offer support to families, wherever they are based, with tailormade resources for parents and schools to give children emotional support.

There’s a comfortable play area for family visits, with plenty of toys for little ones, and since introducing video calls during the pandemic, families can now visit virtually, which has proved invaluable during the current cost of living crisis, where travel to Colchester can be too expensive for some.

Mental, emotional and physical wellbeing is a priority. The welfare staff ensure that detainees have access to counselling for drug and alcohol addiction, bereavement, emotional and anger management issues. The chaplaincy is also on hand, with faith leaders from all major religions.

For Foreign & Commonwealth personnel, Alison links in with AFF’s F&C team. “AFF is always quick to respond and able to provide expert information and guidance on a subject that few others have the knowledge to advise on,” she explains.

Next steps

Those returning to unit are taken through a 16-week military training programme to give them all the military skills they need to go back to their roles. Cpl James Wright, Military Training Wing, says: “It’s skills they go through in basic training and we just refine them to a high standard. There’s no rank structure here so they all do the same training. They are natural leaders in many cases, so some do find it hard to adjust, but others are a great help.”

Life on the outside

If discharge is on the horizon, the education and training wing ensures that detainees are as well prepared as possible. There are classrooms, a library and an IT suite where they can go every day to work towards qualifications. Senior Education Officer Sarah Brown showed us around: “We do an employability skills level 2 qualification – as a minimum that’s what we want them to leave with. We base the coursework on what industry they want to go into, tailor their CV and run mock interviews.”

There are also connections with local colleges and government-funded courses to get stuck into for those who are in for long enough. “There are so many, we’ve had people do anything from web design to barbering,” adds Sarah.

For more vocational qualifications, there are workshops for welding, forklift truck operation or mechanics, plus basic construction courses, with City & Guilds qualifications on offer. Some have managed to build entire bathrooms under the guidance of Construction Skills Instructor Colin Pethick: “Long termers do projects – I give them the plans and they have to do everything including electrics and plumbing. They come here in the morning like a normal working day.”

Connecting with nature

At the back of the camp is a smallholding with goats, pigs and chickens, as well as a vegetable garden and beehives. It offers a sanctuary to be around nature and kept busy with odd jobs that are always needed, and it’s under constant development thanks to the passion and dedication of former soldier turned farm manager Pete Phillips. “Detainees can come over here and do basic farming, bits of carpentry, animal welfare and just general hands-on stuff,” he says. “There’s lots of potential here and we’re trying to improve it bit by bit.”

The establishment was given a good report last year by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons, which headlined its priorities on education and care. Cpl Wright summed up the approach: “I don’t think it’s because of one particular method that we employ, it’s a case of the multiple things we do here that come together and help people make the right choices.”

To find out more, see MCTC at army.mod.uk

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